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Main article: Controller

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 42

Can a wearable improve memory? Humm raises $2.6 million so consumers can find out

15:12 | 18 December

There’s an emerging body of research suggesting that electrical stimulation applied to the brain can help improve memory and cognitive function.

A recent study conducted by researchers from Boston University this year found that 70 year-old participants in a clinical trial performed certain memory tasks as well as 20 year-olds after exposure to mild electrical neurostimulation. The results were published in April in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience, and reported by Science Daily.

Now Humm, a graduate of the Berkeley Skylab accelerator program, has raised $2.6 million to commercialize its own product, which draws from years of research into the effects of electrical stimulation on the brain.

The company actually conducted its own study with the University of California at Berkeley. Published earlier this year the report said that of the 40 participants in the study who were given Humm’s wearable patches, all saw their performance on certain specific memory tests improve roughly 20% above the placebo or control group. It was an improvement approximately 120 times greater than the natural learning effect of the control group in the study, the company said.

Simply put, the electrical stimulation boosts brainwaves and enhances what neuroscientists call working memory, which determines the amount of information a person can retain at one time. The patch sends out a small electric pulse that triggers neurons to resonate together at a similar frequency. By prompting the more neurons to fire in concert, it primes more of the brain to process information.

Humm is one of several startups that are developing neuro-stimulation wearables for all kinds of applications. Halo Neuroscience has a wearable for improving athletic performance; Kernel and Flow Neuroscience are examining the technology’s ability to treat depression; BrainCo is another company looking to improve learning through neurostimulation; while Neuros Medical is using the technology to treat chronic pain.

According to the company, this seed financing will be used to scale production of the company’s first product, which was launched in August.

“As software and biology continue to be on a collision course, new technology paradigms will emerge that will unleash creativity and empower scientists, clinicians and engineers to read, edit and write biology – including key human functions,” said Ciarán O’Leary, General Partner at Blueyard Capital, which led the most recent investment into the company. “Humm’s technology improves the performance of the human mind and has the potential to expand healthspan for millions of people.”

The initial market for the company’s products are middle-aged, middle-class consumers looking to learn a new skill or language, according to the company’s chief executive and co-founder, Iain McIntyre.

“Using the patch is as easy as sticking on a band-aid — nothing bulky or awkward. In a 15-minute session, our clinical trial shows a 20 percent improvement in working memory capacity [against placebo] within the first three minutes of wearing a patch, that then lasts for more than an hour afterwards,” McIntyre said. “In our testing with hundreds of early access users this year we’ve seen people doing exciting things with that boost, like accelerating the speed they can learn a language or remembering more of what they read.”

At $5 per-patch, the company’s pitch is that it costs about as much as a fancy cup of coffee, and has better results for stimulating productivity.

Users just slap a Humm strip onto their forehead and leave it on for about thirty minutes. McIntyre recommends using the patch no more than twice a day.

Early access for the device is currently closed (after the Air Force reportedly put in an order for 10,000 of the devices to trial them), but the company is setting up a waitlist for folks looking to try it out. The company expects its device to be commercially available by the third quarter of next year.

 


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Logitech accessory kit makes the Xbox Adaptive Controller even more accessible

20:59 | 18 November

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was a breath of fresh air in a gaming world that has largely failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities. Now Logitech has joined the effort to empower this diverse population with an expanded set of XAC-compatible buttons and triggers.

Logitech’s $100 Adaptive Gaming Kit comes with a dozen buttons in a variety of sizes, two large analog levers to control the triggers, and a Velcro-style pad to which they can all be securely attached. It’s hopefully the start of a hardware ecosystem that will be at least a significant fraction of the diversity available to the able population.

The visibility of gamers with disabilities has grown both as the communities have organized and communicated their needs, and as gaming itself has moved towards the mainstream. Turns out there are millions of people who, for one reason or another, can’t use a controller or mouse and keyboard the way others can — and they want to play games too.

Always one of the more reliably considerate companies when it comes to accessibility issues, Microsoft began developing the XAC a couple years back — though admittedly after years of, like the rest of the gaming hardware community, failing to accommodate disabled gamers.

Logitech was an unwitting partner, having provided joysticks for the project without being told what they were for. But when the XAC was unveiled, Logitech was stunned and chagrined.

“This is something that, shame on us, we didn’t think about,” said Mark Starrett, Logitech G’s senior global product manager. “We’ve been trying to diversify gaming, like getting more girls to play, but we totally did not think about this. But you see the videos Microsoft put out, how excited the kids are — it’s so motivating to see that, it makes you want to continue that work.”

And to their credit, the team got in contact with Microsoft soon after and said they’d like to collaborate on some accessories for the system.

In some ways this wouldn’t be particularly difficult: The XAC uses 3.5mm headphone jacks as its main input, so it can accept signals from a wide range of devices, from its own buttons and sticks to things like blow tubes, so there’s no worries about proprietary connections, for instance. But when it comes to accessible devices and systems like this, there are often other rigorous standards in place that need to be upheld throughout, so it’s necessary to work closely with both the platform provider (Microsoft) and, naturally, the people who will actually be using them.

“This community, you can’t make anything for them without doing it with them,” said Starrett. “When we design a gaming keyboard or mouse, we engage pros, players, all that stuff, right? So with this, it’s absolutely critical to watch them with every piece.”

“The biggest takeaway is that everybody is so different: every challenge, every setup, everyone we talked to,” he continued. “We had a 70, 80 year old guy who plays Destiny and has arthritis — all we really needed to do was put a block on the back of his controller, because he couldn’t pull the trigger. Then we worked with a girl who has a quadstick, she was playing Madden like a pro with something you just puff and blow on. Another guy played everything with his feet. So we spent a lot of time on the site just watching.”

The final set of buttons they arrived at includes three very large ones, four smaller ones (though still big compared with ordinary controller buttons), four “light touch” buttons that can be easily activated by any contact, and two big triggers. Because they knew different gamers would use the sets differently, there’s a set of labels in the box that can be applied however they like.

Then there are two hook and loop (i.e. Velcro) mats to which the buttons can be attached, one rigid and the other flexible, so it can be draped over a leg, the arm of a couch, etc.

Even the packaging the buttons come in is accessible: A single strip of tape pulls out and causes the whole box to unfold, and then everything is in non-sealed reusable bags. The guide is wordless so it can be used in any country, by any player.

It’s nice to see such consideration at work, and no doubt the players who will benefit from these products will be happy to have a variety of options to choose from. I was starting to think I could use a couple of these buttons myself.

Starrett seemed very happy with the results, and also proud that the work had started something new at Logitech.

“The groups we talked to brought a lot of different things to mind for us,” he said. “We’re always updating things, but now we’re updating everything with an eye to accessibility. It’s helped Logitech as a company to learn about this stuff.”

You can pick up Logitech’s Adaptive Gaming kit here for $100.

 


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Microsoft adds per-app time limits to its parental controls

19:59 | 8 October

Microsoft is following Apple and Google’s lead with today’s launch of per-app and per-game time limits in its parental control software. Already, the company allows parents to limit screen time across Windows 10, Xbox One, and Android via the Microsoft Launcher. However, it hadn’t yet allowed parents to limit the amount of time a child would spend in a specific app or game, as its competitors do.

Instead, its existing controls allowed parents only to dole out a set amount of hours of screen time. Parents could choose to either leave the time up to the kids to manage, or limit it at the device level — like, only allowing one hour of Xbox time but permitting more screen time on the PC, for example.

However, the current trend in screen time management is not to approach all screen time as unproductive and unhealthy. Instead, it’s about configuring limits on the more addictive apps and games that eat up increasing amounts of children’s time, while permitting educational tools to have fewer limits.

For older kids and teens, social media apps like TikTok or Instagram could be the culprit, while younger kids may just be spending too much time “hanging out” in virtual worlds like Roblox and Fortnite. Problems on this front have gotten pretty bad. Mobile games are under fire for using gambling tactics like loot boxes to engage children. And Fortnite is now the subject of a lawsuit that claims that, in part, that the game’s addictive nature is due to its use slot machine-like mechanics and variable reward systems, which manipulate children’s brains.

Without being able to limit these apps directly, kids may end up using all of their allotted screen time on just the one app or game they’re obsessed with at the moment.

Apple had already allowed per-app time limits with the launch of its screen time controls in iOS 12. And Google more recently updated its own Family Link software, now preinstalled on new Android devices, to include a similar feature.

With today’s update, Microsoft is now on board, too.

microsoft per app time limits

The new app and game limits parents set will apply across Windows 10, Xbox and Android devices running Microsoft Launcher. In other words, kids can’t get more game time just by switching devices.

The controls also allow parents to offer more screen time on certain days — like weekends, for instance — than others.

To use this feature, parents will need to create a family group and make Microsoft accounts for all the kids.

Once enabled, kids will get a warning about their screen time 15 minutes before the limit is reached, and then again at 5 minutes. Since kids will often beg for a few more minutes, Microsoft made it easy for parents to grant or deny more time via email or via a Microsoft Launcher notification on their own Android phone.

The per-app time limits are launching today in preview within Microsoft’s existing family settings.

“Ultimately, our goal is for the app and game limits feature to provide flexible and customizable tools to meet each family’s unique needs,” the company explains in an announcement. “You as parents know what’s best for your children — no technology can ever replace that — but we’re hoping these tools can help you to strike the right balance,” it says.

 

 


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Hyundai is getting into the flying car business

20:36 | 30 September

Hyundai Motor Group has launched a new air mobility division aimed at developing technology for the commercialization of flying cars, the latest company to dive into the emerging industry.

The division will be led by Dr. Jaiwon Shin, an aeronautics engineer who most recently led the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA. While at NASA, Shin oversaw a $725 million program into aeronautics research initiatives, such as supersonic X-plane, electrification of aircraft, UAS traffic management, and urban air mobility.

The South Korean automaker said the business unit led by Shin will “develop core technologies and innovative solutions for safe and efficient airborne travel.” Shin’s expertise centers on airframe, engine, aviation safety, and air traffic management — technologies that Hyundai says will allow it to take a lead in the urban air mobility sector.

That urban air sector is expected to grow into a market worth $1.5 trillion within the next 20 years,” according to Shin.

Of course, there are many others pursuing various kinds of air taxis, including Uber, Kitty Hawk Corp., Terrafugia and Volocopter, to name just a few.

All of these companies, including Hyundai see the flying cars as a way to solve the traffic problems on the ground. Flying cars could merely move that congestion to the skies, which is why technologies around airspace traffic management — which Shin has experience in — is just as important as developing the aircraft.

 


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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


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Google completes controversial takeover of DeepMind Health

15:46 | 19 September

Google has completed a controversial take-over of the health division of its UK AI acquisition, DeepMind.

The personnel move had been delayed as National Health Service (NHS) trusts considered whether to shift their existing DeepMind contracts — some for a clinical task management app, others involving predictive health AI research — to Google.

In a blog post yesterday Dr Dominic King, formerly of DeepMind (and the NHS), now UK site lead at Google Health, confirmed the transfer, writing: “It’s clear that a transition like this takes time. Health data is sensitive, and we gave proper time and care to make sure that we had the full consent and cooperation of our partners. This included giving them the time to ask questions and fully understand our plans and to choose whether to continue our partnerships. As has always been the case, our partners are in full control of all patient data and we will only use patient data to help improve care, under their oversight and instructions.”

The Royal Free NHS Trust, Taunton & Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust all put out statements yesterday confirming they have moved their contractual arrangements to Google.

In the case of the Royal Free, patients’ Streams data is moving to the Google Cloud Platform infrastructure to support expanding use of the app which surfaces alerts for a kidney condition to another of its hospitals (Barnet Hospital).

One NHS trust, Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, has not signed a new contract — and says it had never deployed Streams, suggesting it had not found a satisfactory way to integrate the app with its existing ways of working — instead taking the decision to terminate the arrangement. Though it’s leaving the door open to future health service provision from Google.

A spokeswoman for Yeovil hospital sent us this statement:

We began our relationship with DeepMind in 2017 and since then have been determining what part the Streams application could play in clinical decision making here at Yeovil Hospital.

The app was never operationalised, and no patient data was processed.

What’s key for us as a hospital, when it comes to considering the implementation of any new piece of technology, is whether it improves the effectiveness and safety of patient care and how it tessellates with existing ways of working. Working with the DeepMind team, we found that Streams is not necessary for our organisation at the current time.

Whilst our contractual relationship has ended, we will remain an anchor partner of Google Health so will continue to be part of conversations about emerging technology which may be of benefit to our patients and our clinician in the future.

The hand-off of DeepMind Health to Google, which was announced just over a year ago, means the tech giant is now directly providing software services to a number of NHS trusts that had signed contracts with DeepMind for Streams; as well as taking over several AI research partnerships that involve the use of NHS patients’ data to try to develop predictive diagnostic models using AI technology.

DeepMind — which kicked off its health efforts by signing an agreement with the Royal Free NHS Trust in 2015, going on to publicly announce the health division in spring 2016 — said last year its future focus would be as a “research organisation”.

As recently as this July DeepMind was also touting a predictive healthcare research “breakthrough” — announcing it had trained a deep learning model for continuously predicting the future likelihood of a patient developing a life-threatening condition called acute kidney injury. (Though the AI is trained on heavily gender-skewed data from the US department of Veteran Affairs.)

Yet it’s now become clear that it’s handed off several of its key NHS research partnerships to Google Health as part of the Streams transfer.

In its statement about the move yesterday, UCLH writes that “it was proposed” that its DeepMind research partnership — which is related to radiotherapy treatment for patients with head and neck cancer — be transferred to Google Health, saying this will enable it to “make use of Google’s scale and experience to deliver potential breakthroughs to patients more rapidly”.

“We will retain control over the anonymised data and remain responsible for deciding how it is used,” it adds. “The anonymised data is encrypted and only accessible to a limited number of researchers who are working on this project with UCLH’s permission. Access to the data will only be granted for officially approved research purposes and will be automatically audited and logged.”

It’s worth pointing out that the notion of “anonymised” high dimension health data should be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism — given the risk of re-identification.

Moorfields also identifies Google’s “resources” as the incentive for agreeing for its eye-scan related research partnership to be handed off, writing: “This updated partnership will allow us to draw on Google’s resources and expertise to extend the benefits of innovations that AI offers to more of our clinicians and patients.”

Quite where this leaves DeepMind’s ambitions to “lead the way in fundamental research applying AI to important science and medical research questions, in collaboration with academic partners, to accelerate scientific progress for the benefit of everyone”, as it put it last year — when it characterized the hand-off to Google Health as all about ‘scaling Streams’ — remains to be seen.

We’ve reached out to DeepMind for comment on that.

Co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, who’s been taking a leave of absence from the company, tweeted yesterday to congratulate the Google Health team.

DeepMind’s NHS research contracts also transferring to Google Health suggests the tech giants wants zero separation between core AI health research and the means of application, using its own cloud infrastructure, of any promising models it’s able to train off of patient data and commercialize by selling to the same healthcare services providers as apps and services.

You could say Google is seeking to bundle access to the high resolution patient data that’s essential for developing health AIs with the provision of commercial digital healthcare services it hopes to sell hospitals down the line, all funnelled through the same Google cloud infrastructure.

As we reported at the time, the hand-off of DeepMind Health to Google is controversial.

Firstly because the trust that partnered with DeepMind in 2015 to develop Streams was later found by the UK’s data protection watchdog to have breached UK law. The ICO said there was no legal basis for the Royal Free to have shared the medical records of ~1.6M patients with DeepMind during the app’s development.

Despite concerns being raised over the legal basis for sharing patients’ data throughout 2016 and 2017 DeepMind continued inking NHS contracts for Streams — claiming at the time that patient data would never be handed to Google. Yet fast forward a couple of years and it’s now literally sitting on the tech giant’s servers.

It’s that U-turn that led the DeepMind to Google Health hand-off to be branded a trust demolition by legal experts on the news breaking last year.

This summer the UK’s patient data watchdog, the National Data Guardian, released correspondence between her office and the ICO which informed the latter’s 2017 finding that Streams had breached data protection law — in which she articulates a clear regulatory position that the “reasonable expectations” of patients must govern non-direct care uses for people’s health data, rather than healthcare providers relying on doctors to decide whether they think the intended purpose for people’s medical information is justified.

The Google Health blog post talks a lot about “patient care” and “patient data” but has nothing to say about patients’ expectations of how their personal information should be used, with King writing that “our partners are in full control of all patient data and we will only use patient data to help improve care, under their oversight and instructions”.

It was exactly such an ethical blindspot around the patient’s perspective that led Royal Free doctors to override considerations about people’s medical privacy in the rush to throw their lot in with Google-DeepMind and scramble for AI-fuelled predictive healthcare.

Patient consent was not sought for passing medical records then; nor have patients’ views been consulted in the transfer of Streams contracts (and people’s data) to Google now.

And while — after it was faced with public outcry over the NHS data it was processing — DeepMind did go on to publish its contracts with NHS trusts (with some redactions), Google Health is not offering any such transparency on the replacement contracts that have been inked now. So it’s not clear whether there have been any other changes to the terms. Patients have to take all that on trust.

We reached out to the Royal Free Trust with questions about the new contract with Google but a spokeswoman just pointed us to the statement on its website — where it writes: “All migration and implementation will be completed to the highest standards of security and will be compliant with relevant data protection legislation and NHS information governance requirements.”

“As with all of our arrangements with third parties, the Royal Free London remains the data controller in relation to all personal data. This means we retain control over that personal data at all times and are responsible for deciding how that data is used for the benefit of patient care,” it adds.

In another reduction in transparency accompanying this hand-off from DeepMind to Google Health, an independent panel of reviewers that DeepMind appointed to oversee its work with the NHS in another bid to boost trust has been disbanded.

“As we announced in November, that review structure — which worked for a UK entity primarily focused on finding and developing healthcare solutions with and for the NHS — is not the right structure for a global effort set to work across continents as well as different health services,” King confirmed yesterday.

In its annual report last year the panel had warned of the risk of DeepMind exerting “excessive monopoly power” as a result of the data access and streaming infrastructure bundled with provision of the Streams app. For DeepMind then read Google now.

Independent experts raising concerns about monopoly power unsurprisingly doesn’t align with Google’s global ambitions in future healthcare provision.

The last word from the independent reviewers is a Medium post penned by former chair, professor Donal O’Donoghue — who writes that he’s “disappointed that the IR experiment did not have the time to run its course and I am sad to say goodbye to a project I’ve found fascinating”.

“This was a fascinating exploration into how a new governance model could be applied to such an important area such as health,” he adds. “It’s hard to know how this would have developed over the years but… what is clear to me is that trust and transparency are of paramount importance in healthcare and I’m keen to see how Google Health, and other providers, deliver this in the future.”

But with trust demolished and transparency reduced Google Health appears to have learnt exactly nothing from DeepMind’s missteps.

 


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ZenHub Workspaces make GitHub easier to use across teams

15:00 | 21 May

ZenHub, a project management tool for GitHub, today announced the launch of Workspaces, a feature that makes it easier for teams to use its service — and GitHub — by allowing them to tweak the service to the needs of specific teams while still using GitHub as the ground truth for their work.

With Workspaces, teams can create multiple workspaces inside a GitHub repository (ZenHub does this through a Chrome extension) so that a team of developers can get a detailed view of every issue, for example, while other teams only get to see what is relevant to them. This also allows different teams to opt for their own work styles, no matter whether that’s Scrum or Kanban.

“What this will allow teams to do is to work in their own unique ways and build their own unique workflows dependent on how they work,” ZenHub founder and CEO Aaron Upright told me. “So a front end team can have its own board of GitHub issues, that’s more of a Kanban-style of workflow. And the back end team can have its own workflow that’s more of a scrum style.”

Issues are still shared across boards and every team can see what the other teams are working on, which will also allow for more transparency inside the company.

 


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Google turns your Android phone into a security key

19:00 | 10 April

Your Android phone could soon replace your hardware security key to provide two-factor authentication access to your accounts. As the company announced at its Cloud Next conference today, it has developed a Bluetooth-based protocol that will be able to talk to its Chrome browser and provide a standards-based second factor for access to its services, similar to modern security keys.

It’s no secret that two-factor authentication remains one of the best ways to secure your online accounts. Typically, that second factor comes to you in the form of a push notification, text message or through an authentication app like the Google Authenticator. There’s always the risk of somebody intercepting those numbers or phishing your account and then quickly using your second factor to log in, though. Because a physical security key also ensures that you are on the right site before it exchanges the key, it’s almost impossible to phish this second factor. The key simply isn’t going to produce a token on the wrong site.

Because Google is using the same standard here, just with different hardware, that phishing protection remains intact when you use your phone, too.

Bluetooth security keys aren’t a new thing, of course, and Google’s own Titan keys include a Bluetooth version (though they remain somewhat controversial). The user experience for those keys is a bit messy, though, since you have to connect the key and the device first. Google, however, says that it has done away with all of this thanks to a new protocol that uses Bluetooth but doesn’t necessitate the usual Bluetooth connection setup process. Sadly, though, the company didn’t quite go into details as to how this would work.

Google says this new feature will work with all Android 7+ devices that have Bluetooth and location services enabled. Pixel 3 phones, which include Google’s Titan M tamper-resistant security chip, get some extra protections, but the company is mostly positioning this as a bonus and not a necessity.

As far as the setup goes, the whole process isn’t all that different from setting up a security key (and you’ll still want to have a second or third key handy in case you ever lose or destroy your phone). You’ll be able to use this new feature for both work and private Google accounts.

For now, this also only works in combination with Chrome. The hope here, though, is to establish a new standard that will then be integrated into other browsers, as well. It’s only been a week or two since Google enabled support for logging into its own service with security keys on Edge and Firefox. That was a step forward. Now that Google offers a new service that’s even more convenient, though, it’ll likely be a bit before these competing browsers will offer support, too, once again giving Google a bit of an edge.

 


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Electronics giant Philips invests in monitoring and information platform for expecting mothers

22:19 | 7 January

The international electronics and medical device giant Philips is pushing further into pregnancy and childcare services by leading a $6 million early stage investment in the pregnancy-focused app-developer and device manufacturer, Babyscripts. 

The Washington, DC-based company works with hospitals and healthcare providers to distribute a medical device and mobile app for monitoring blood pressure and providing neonatal care information for expecting mothers.

According to Babyscripts co-founder and President Juan Pablo Segura, typical neonatal care follows a standard script with women seeing an obstetrician typically fourteen times over the course of the pregnancy. And most of those visits are just to monitor a woman’s weight and blood pressure during pregnancy.

Babyscripts can adjust the frequency and scope of treatment required through its blood pressure and pregnancy monitoring application, Segura said.

Using remote-monitoring devices to monitor blood pressure and weight, the company claims it can tailor treatments to risk profiles and allow healthcare providers to manage up to 90% of pregnancies virtually.

The company is already being used to monitor 160,000 pregnancies across 20 states. In the U.S. there are roughly 4 million pregnancies per year.

“This funding will help us continue to acquire market share while also allowing us to focus on building even more products for patients in pregnancy,” says Babyscripts CEO and Co-founder, Anish Sebastian.

As part of the investment, Babyscripts will partner with the mother and baby unit of Philips healthcare to build more virtual care obstetric and pediatric services.

Babyscripts historically has focused all of its efforts in creating a trusted channel between the patient and OBGYN throughout the pregnancy,” said Segura, in a statement. “It’s only natural that we begin to expand that relationship through postpartum care and early stage pediatrics. On average, our patients use our app and remote monitoring service 6 times a week.”

 


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Apple puts third-party screen time apps on notice

23:57 | 5 December

A number of app developers building third-party screen time trackers and parental control applications are worried that Apple’s increased scrutiny of their apps in recent weeks is not a coincidence. With Apple’s launch of iOS 12, the company has implemented its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. Not long after, developers’ third-party screen time apps came under increased review from Apple, and, in some cases, rejections and removals from the App Store.

The impacted developers have been using a variety of methods to track screen time, as there has not been any official means of tracking this data. This included the use of background location, VPNs, and MDM-based solutions, and sometimes a combination of methods.

A small crowd of a half-dozen or so developers began to discuss their troubles amongst themselves over the past couple months. But not all wanted to go on record. After all, publicly criticizing Apple is not something many developers feel comfortable doing, especially when their business is at risk.

However, a few did take to their company blogs to report their troubles when they thought they had reached the end of the road.

In October, for example, the digital detox app called Mute publicly announced its removal from the App Store around the same time that many other screen time tracking apps had been put on notice.

Then three-year old screen time app Space did the same after its removal from the App Store in November.

They were not alone. Several others, who did not want to be quoted, were also facing rejections.

Some of the developers, we understand, were told they were in violation of App Store developer guideline 2.5.4, which specifies when multitasking apps are allowed to use background location. Specifically, developers were told they were “misusing background location mode for purposes other than location-related features.”

Others were told their app violated developer guideline 2.5.1, which references using public APIs in an unapproved manner.

And others, still, were told the way they’ve implemented screen time and parental controls was no longer permitted.

Above: Space on iOS

In an odd turn of events, after Space and Mute published on their public company blogs to complain, they received a call from Apple and had their apps reinstated on the App Store.

The Apple reps asked the companies about how they handled data privacy, and reminded them they have to have a customer-facing feature that requires location-based services in order to legitimize their use of such an approach, they reported.

“We are of course hugely grateful that Apple has chosen to continue to allow our business to operate,” said Space CEO Georgina Powell.

But these were not isolated incidents. Across the third-party screen time app industry, apps were coming under review – in some cases, after operating for years without incident.

Above: Moment app on iOS

But at the same time, some apps were getting a pass – as if Apple is making its decisions on a one-off basis.

For example, an app called Moment – which TechCrunch has covered a few times over the past four years and has been featured by Apple – also received a call from Apple, we learned.

Apple had some questions for Moment, which they answered to Apple’s satisfaction. The app was not removed or threatened.

Asked if they were concerned at all about the increased scrutiny, Moment’s creator Kevin Holesh responded, “I do feel confident about Moment’s future after talking to Apple.” But he added he’s now “mostly watching to see how things play out with this issue going forward.”

The makers of the screen time app solution and hardware device, Circle with Disney, is also unaffected, we were told. (But then, imagine the consumer backlash if your $99 home network device just stopped working.)

Though not all apps were getting the boot, it seemed, Apple did seem to have a problem with screen time apps that took advantage of mobile device management (MDM) and/or VPNs to operate.

For example, the developer behind Kidslox had implemented a combination of MDM and a VPN for screen time and parental controls. The app tracks the time the device is connected to the VPN for screen time, which Apple said it could no longer do.

Kidslox CEO Viktor Yevpak tried to explain a VPN was necessary for more than just screen time. The app also includes a feature that checks websites against a blacklist to allow for kids to safely browse when they were connected through the VPN.

“I said, there has to be a middle ground, because you’re pretty much killing the entire company,” Yevpak told TechCrunch, recalling his conversations with Apple’s app review. “We have over 30 people working on it, and you’re us telling us to shut down,” he had told them.

After several rejections of updates to Kidslox’ year-old app, the developer finally took to the company blog to also call out Apple for what it believed was the “systematic destruction” of the third-party screen time management industry.

Like many we spoke to, he’s highly suspicious about the timing of Apple’s review, given that iOS 12’s screen time feature has just launched.

Kidslox remains available on the App Store today but its updates are not being approved. Yevpak says the company has been discussing ways to pivot the business, as it seems its time is up.

Apple, of course, never intended for VPNs to be used for screen time tracking or parental controls, nor did it want the enterprise-focused MDM technology to be implemented in consumer-based apps. And by permitting its use to date in apps like these, Apple had given up control over how its devices can be used by consumers.

But its policies have not matched up with its App Store approvals. Apple has greenlit – and it has been directly aware of – screen time apps using MDM in ways that violated its guidelines for years.

Above: OurPact’s app rules allow parents to block apps

One case in point app is OurPact (specifically, its OurPact Jr. product), an app which leverages MDM technology to allow parents to control if and when kids can use certain apps on their phone, block texting, filter the web, and much more. Its apps – one designed for the parent and the other for the child – have been live for four years. OurPact now says that Apple will no longer allow the company to use MDM for its purposes.

“Our team has received confirmation from Apple that managing application access and content outside of iOS Screen Time will not be permitted in the Apple device ecosystem,” says Amir Moussavian, OurPact parent company Eturi Corp., in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “It’s incredibly disappointing that Apple is choosing to dissolve the iOS parental control market at a time when childhood and adolescent screen time management is finally being understood as a necessity.”

The company says its OurPact Jr. app, the app designed for the child’s device, is impacted by the change. But its parent app will continue to operate.

Apple’s permissiveness to allow these “rule-breaking” apps signaled to developers entering the screen time space anew that MDM was being tacitly approved in these scenarios, even if Apple’s own terms and agreements said otherwise.

Developer Andrew Armour of ACTIVATE Fitness, said he decided to implement MDM for a screen time management solution for iOS after seeing many other developers already had been the same thing for years, he told TechCrunch.

“I have sunk my entire life savings into the development of this mobile application to provide families with a solution to better regulate and manage screen time and at the same time promote physical activity,” Armour said, speaking about his app’s App Store rejection.”After two years of hard work and determination, my entrepreneurial journey to introduce ACTIVATE Fitness to the world has come to an end due to an Apple rejection in a flawed and unfair review process,” he lamented.

Apple could choose to release an official Screen Time API or carve out exceptions for screen time apps that use MDM or other technologies. Its decision to instead put the entire third-party industry on notice after rolling out its own screen time solution, however, seems to indicate it now wants to control the experience of monitoring screen time usage on iOS, and not leave it up to these third parties.

At the end of the day, the decision is bad for consumers because Apple’s solution doesn’t offer many of the features of the MDM-based solutions focused on parental controls. For example, parents using third-party screen time solutions can hide certain apps from kids’ homescreens and control when those apps function.

Apple declined to comment on the matter.

But sources familiar with Apple’s thinking dismissed this as being some sort of targeted crackdown against third-party screen time apps. Rather, the pushback developers received was part of Apple’s ongoing app review process, they said, and noted that the rules these apps violate have been in place for years.

That’s a fair point. Apple can opt to enforce its rules at any time, and building apps in violation of those rules is never a great idea – especially when developers are knowingly taking advantage of technologies in ways they had to know Apple never intended.

That being said, a decision to purge the App Store of third-party screen time and parental control apps is one that may come across to the impacted end users of these apps as being in poor taste.

In recent months, big tech companies – including the likes of Facebook and Google – have been made aware of the addictive nature of our devices and the apps we use and the negative effects on our mental health. They have all been rolling out solutions to counter this problem. For Apple to be seen as tamping down on the very apps that have been trying to battle these problems for years – before Silicon Valley took notice – is not a great look.

 


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